Why Are Academics So Obsessed With Alien? And Will Prometheus Get the Same Treatment?

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June 6 2012 12:28 PM

“Woman: The Other Alien in Alien

Why are academics so obsessed with Ridley Scott’s movie and its sequels? Plus: An Alien bibliography.

Ripley (Sigourney Weaver) in Alien
Ripley (Sigourney Weaver) in Alien

Still from Alien © 2003 20th-Century Fox. All rights reserved.

After a marketing campaign of such ever-evolving ingenuity that it’s put certain alien life forms we could mention to shame, Prometheus has almost landed. Audiences are looking to Ridley’s Scott’s science-fiction thriller for answers to many questions: Who or what is the space jockey? Where did we all come from? Why do all movie robots style their hair with a neat side part like Michael Fassbender? The mystery of what we should call the damn thing, meanwhile, remains intact. A sequel? It takes places before the events of the first Alien film. A prequel? Scott and his actors have been Delphically warning us off the term. Prometheus takes place in the same “universe,” says Scott, and uses “strands of Alien’s DNA, so to speak”—a wonderfully rich metaphor for him to float given what the films have to say on the subject of reproductive rights and their usurpation.

“The birth of the alien from Kane’s stomach plays on what Freud described as a common misunderstanding that many children have about birth, that is, that the mother is somehow impregnated through the mouth,” determined Barbara Creed, professor of Screen Studies at the University of Melbourne, in “Horror and the Monstrous Feminine: An Imaginary Abjection” (Screen, Vol. 27, 1986), just one of hundreds of academic theses spawned by Scott’s 1979 shocker and its sequels. Academics have always loved science fiction, of course. No film studies syllabus is complete without an invitation to parse alien-invasion B-movies from the ‘50s as fretful cold-war allegories. There was always something a little lordly about this kind of approach to pop-artifacts, as if the little dears couldn’t tell what made their hearts pitter-pat so until the redoubtable professor arrived with his chalkboard, duster, and special subtext X-ray specs.

But the cottage industry of analysis that has sprung up around Alien is something else again. In 1980, the highly-respected academic journal Science Fiction Studies devoted an entire issue to the first Alien—an event that may, in time, come to rank alongside Cahiers du Cinema’s All-Hitchcock issue of 1956. Since then, there has been no looking back. We’ve had Alien as feminist allegory (“Woman: The Other Alien in Alien,” Women Worldwalkers: New Dimensions of Science Fiction and Fantasy, 1985), Alien as mothering fable (“Mommie Dearest: Aliens, Rosemary's Baby, and Mothering,” Journal of Popular Culture, 1990), Alien as abortion parable (“Voices of Sexual Distortion: Rape, Birth, and Self-Annihilation Metaphors in the Aliens Trilogy,” Quarterly Journal of Speech, 1995). Even Jones the cat got his own diagram, courtesy of James H. Kavenagh’s essay “Son of a Bitch: Feminism, Humanism, and Science in Alien” (October, No. 13, 1980), which sought to align the alien attack on humans with an Althusserian-Marxist takedown of humanism in general:

“The founding term in the film is human (S). ... The anti-human (-S), is, of course, the alien, and the not-human (̅S̅) is Ash, the robot. The cat, then functions in the slot of the not-anti-human (-̅S̅), an indispensable role in this drama.”
“The founding term in the film is human (S). ... The anti-human (-S),is, of course, the alien, and the not-human (̅S̅) is Ash, the robot.The cat, then functions in the slot of the not-anti-human (-̅S̅), an indispensable role in this drama.”
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Good to know.

What is it about the Alien films? No other modern science-fiction film has inspired this level of termite-like deconstruction save perhaps Scott’s own Blade Runner, whose rain-soaked surfaces teem with postmodern theorists researching doctoral theses with titles like “American Exceptionalism and the Complicit Postcolonialism of Blade Runner” and “Data and Dick’s Deckard: Cyborg as Problematic Signifier.” Which suggests that there is something about the rich, art-directed layer-cake of Ridley Scott productions that positively cries out for Greimasian semantic rectangles.

“It has absolutely no message,” insisted Scott of the first Alien. “It works on a very visceral level and its only point is terror, and more terror.” Of all the things you can do with Scott’s alien beastie—be frightened by it, thrilled by it, repulsed by it—studying it seems the last thing on anybody’s mind, except of course Science Officer Ash, secretly eyeing it up for the company’s weapons division. When it comes to the burgeoning field of post-doctorate Alien study, Ash graduates summa cum lauda. Study is all he wants to do.

“It’s a perfect organism, its structural perfection matched only by its hostility,” he says.

“You admire it,” says Ripley.

“I admire its purity,” replies Ash, “a survivor, unclouded by notions of remorse, morality.” 

Hence Ripley’s fears in James Cameron’s sequel of 1986, Aliens: “Just tell me one thing, Burke. You're going out there to destroy them, right? Not to study. Not to bring back. But to wipe them out.”

It’s one reason Alien scholars tend to be a little down on James Cameron, although they love the elevation of Ripley to post-feminist action figure—“get away from her you bitch!”—and approve of the fact that all the white males become dead white males at a faster rate than all the nonwhite males (see Greenberg, Harvey. “Fembo: Aliens' Intentions”). Marxists, too, have clucked with approval at the series’ clear-eyed take on corporate malfeasance and outer-space worker rights. And Freudians, needless to say, have had a field day, at least with the first film. A movie more in need of a trip to the analyst would be harder to find.

Alien has issues. It has mommy issues. And sex issues. It has a thing for strong women (who it also likes to ogle in their undies). It’s a hot mess—a Freudian fever dream, with its crabby and post-coital atmosphere, its rebirthing imagery, its queasily gynecological production design, its night-sweat of male anxiety. A “particularly horrifying confusion of the sexual-gyneacological with the gastro-intestinal,” wrote James Kavenagh (“Son of a Bitch: Feminism, Humanism, and Science in Alien”) of the famous John Hurt birth scene, in which “a razor toothed phallic monster gnaws its way through his stomach into the light—a kind of science fiction phallus dentatus.” Is Scott’s alien a boy or a girl? A “phallus dentatus” one minute, Kavenagh endows it with “vaginal teeth” a few pages later.

Thornier still is the issue of Warrant Officer Ripley’s underwear, as glimpsed in the final scene, when she climbs into a space suit for her climactic show-down with the alien. For some this undoes all the film’s good work in deconstructing, destabilizing, and generally dissing oppressive male patriarchies. In “Feminism and Anxiety in Alien” (Science Fiction Studies, Vol. 7, No. 3, 1980), Judith Newton determined the alien to be “a potent expression of male terror at female sexuality,” found the third-act survival of the two women and one black character “especially promising,” but found her smile turning to a frown at the sight of Ripley stripped to her bikini bottoms: “not standard gear for space duty,” she noted sternly. “Ripley is not only divested of coalition and reinvested with femininity, she is also reaffirmed as a Company Woman. ... Though in many ways a fine and thrilling hero, [she] is robbed of radical thrust.”

No so fast, countered Kavenagh. “I would disagree with an ideological denunciation of the film as simply another exercise in conventional sexism on the basis of the scene in which Ripley removes her uniform to appear in T-shirt and panties,” he wrote. “Such criticism would be hard-pressed to avoid repressive and self-defeating assumptions about what constitutes sexism, and irrelevant assumption about what constitutes the film and its ideological discourse.” A cunning move: The panties weren’t sexist. The accusation that the panties were sexist was sexist. But maybe a trifle over-defensive, coming from a man?

For a brief moment in the early ‘80s, it looked as if the brave new world of Alien studies was going to splinter irreconcilably on the issue of Officer Ripley’s panties—the anti-panty camp accusing the pro-panty wing of uncritical phallocentrism, the pro-panty caucus accusing the anti-panty wing of repressive and self-defeating assumptions about what constitutes sexism.

It was left to Melbourne’s professor Creed to broker a tentative piece between the two camps. “Much has been written about the final scene, in which Ripley undresses before the camera, on the grounds that its voyeurism undermines her role as successful heroine,” she wrote with an air of weary summary in “Horror and the Monstrous Feminine: An Imaginary Abjection” Screen, Vol. 27, 1986. What if Ripley in her panties “signifies the ‘acceptable’ form and shape of woman. … The display of woman as reassuring and pleasurable sign.” It’s the system of signification, stupid! As for the sex of the alien “the alien is the mother’s phallus,” she determined, “but the alien is more than a phallus, it is also coded as a toothed vagina, the monstrous feminine as a cannibalistic mother.” Voilà, thanks to another of those toothed vaginas that seem to be all the rage on college campuses these days.

(Note to self: Cancel that college lecture tour I have planned to promote my latest book, "If You Could See What I’ve Seen With Your Eyes": Returning the Replicants’ Gaze in the Work of Ridley Scott.)

It remains to be seen whether Prometheus can keep up this tradition and secure tenure for the next generation of up-and-coming academics. On paper things look good, starting with that title, which continues the tradition of spaceships named after literary-mythic figures (Conrad’s Nostromo in Alien, now Prometheus, of Greco-Romantic fame). The company is up to its usual tricks of post-Capitalist oppression, launching innocent souls on a scientific expedition that turns into a mad scramble for survival. We have more androids, space suits, fallopian-tube corridors, horrifying births, and even the sight of Noomi Rapace in her underwear. An image of post-feminist empowerment? Or just another space honey to delight the male gaze? Answers on a single-spaced sheet of paper, please. No cheating. No blotting. All replicants—repeat all—will be ejected from the examination hall.

________________

An Alien Bibliography:

Abbott, Joe. “They Came From Beyond the Center: Ideology and Political Textuality in the Radical Science Fiction Films of James Cameron,” Literature Film Quarterly 22.1 (1994).

Bell Metereau, Rebecca. “Woman: The Other Alien in Alien” in Weedman Jane B. (ed.) Women Worldwalkers: New Dimensions of Science Fiction and Fantasy (Lubbock: Texas Tech P, 1985).

Berenstein, Rhona. “Mommie Dearest: Aliens, Rosemary's Baby. and Mothering,” Journal of Popular Culture 24.2 (1990).

Bundtzen, Lynda K. “Monstrous Mother: Medusa, Grendel, and now Alien,” Film Quarterly 40.3 (1987).

Chien, Joseph. “Containing Horror: The Alien Trilogy and the Abject,” Focus Magazine 14 (1994).

Creed, Barbara. “Alien and the Monstrous-Feminine,” Screen, Vol. 27, No. 1 (1986), also Kuhn, (ed.) Alien Zone (1990).

Colwell, C. Carter. “Primitivism in the Movies of Ridley Scott: Alien and Blade Runner” in Kerman Judith B. (ed.) Retrofitting Blade Runner (Bowling Green, OH : Popular, 1991).

Cobb, John L. “Alien as an Abortion Parable” Literature/Film Quarterly 18.3 (1990).

Davis Genelli, Tom and Lyn. “Alien: A Myth of Survival,” Film/Psychology Review 4, No. 2 (Summer/Fall 1980).

Elkins, Charles (ed.). “Symposium on Alien,” Science Fiction Studies 7.3 (1980).

Gabbard, Krin. “Aliens and the New Family Romance,” Post Script: Essays in Film and the Humanities 8.1 (1988).

Goodall, Jane R. “Aliens,” Southern Review 23.1 (1990).

Greenberg, Harvey R. “Reimagining the Gargoyle: Psychoanalytic Notes on Alien” in Penley et al, Close Encounters (1991).

Greenberg, Harvey. “Fembo: Aliens' Intentions,” Journal of Popular Film and Television 15.4 (Winter 1988).

Kavenagh, James H, “Feminism, Humanism, and Science in Alien,” October, No. 13 (1980).

Kuhn, Annette. Alien Zone: Cultural Theory and Contemporary Science Fiction (Verso, 1990).

Miles, Geoff and Carol Moore. “Explorations, Prosthetics, and Sacrifice: Phantasies of the Maternal Body in the Alien Trilogy,” CineAction! 30 (1992).

Matheson, T.J. “Triumphant Technology and Minimal Man: The Technological Society, Science Fiction Films, and Ridley Scott's Alien,” Extrapolation, 1992 Fall.

Naureckas, Jim. “Aliens: Mother and the Teeming Hordes,” Jump Cut 32 (1987).

Newton, Judith. “Feminism and Anxiety in Alien” in “Symposium on Alien,” Science Fiction Studies Vol. 7, No. 3 (198), also Kuhn (ed.) Alien Zone (1990).

Rushing: Janice Hocker. “Evolution of the New Frontier in Alien and Aliens: Patriarchal Co-Optation of the Feminine Archetype,” Quarterly Journal of Speech 71 (1989).

Scobie, Stephen. “What's the Story, Mother?: The Mourning of the Alien,” Science Fiction Studies, (Mar. 1993).

Slattery, Dennis Patrick. “Demeter Persephone and the Alien(s) Cultural Body,” New Orleans Review 19.1 (1992).

Vaughn, Thomas. “Voices of Sexual Distortion: Rape, Birth, and Self-Annihilation Metaphors in the Aliens Trilogy,” Quarterly Journal of Speech 81.4 (1995).

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